Next Stop: New Orleans
It’s summer 2016, a few days after opening night at the revived Caribbean Room at the Pontchartrain Hotel in the Lower Garden District of New Orleans. The restaurant’s chef, a stoic Texan named Chris Lusk, is standing underneath a June sun softened by the skylight in the ceiling of the restaurant’s dining room. It’s a preservice meeting, a time when the front-of-house staff is alerted to the night’s menu changes, when operational wrinkles are ironed out and rules set forth. Standing in a semicircle around Lusk, who wears sharp chef whites, a blue apron and a trim beard, are a dozen eager servers, pens above pads, black bowties neatly tied and vests buttoned up. They’ve been culled from the city’s best restaurants. Some of them are second-generation Caribbean Room waiters. “Let’s talk about the Mile High pie,” begins Lusk.
In New Orleans in summer, the heat is so heavy it seems to bend time. Everything melts. Live oaks of last century grow sideways. Studded with the cheap colorful baubles of Mardi Gras, their branches drip with patches of Spanish moss. Even the music of the city flows like molasses. Trombones slide and caterwauling trumpets slope to the blue note. But there’s one thing that doesn’t melt that should have long ago: the Mile High Pie.
More so than the Caribbean Room itself, the Mile High Pie is a bridge connecting past, present, and future. Though not quite a mile high, it clears a good eight inches when erect. Since it was invented by the Caribbean Room’s original chef, Louis Evans, back in 1948, the pie has consisted in some variation of three or four layers of ice cream—chocolate, vanilla, strawberry, and peppermint, in that order from bottom to top—capped with meringue, contained within a thin crumbly piecrust. When a slice arrives at the table, it has a geological heft, like a keystone made of brightly colored sedimentary rock, on top of which semisweet chocolate sauce falls like a cataract, poured tableside by a suited captain.
A monolithic wedge of ice cream served in a crescent-shaped city built on a humid swamp, the very existence of the Mile High Pie seems as unlikely as New Orleans itself. So, too, does its survival, despite near extinction, and so, too, does its latest triumphal resurrection.
“For those of you who didn’t work last night, we’re going to be doing the ‘Old is New Again’ Mile High Pie,” continues Lusk. “Let me tell you what that means.”
For nearly all of the last 70 years, the Mile High Pie has marked the end of a meal at the Caribbean Room, one of New Orleans’s great restaurants, located in the Pontchartrain, one of the most historic Big Easy hotels.
In 1928, a second-generation hotelier named E. Lysle Aschaffenburg built the Pontchartrain as a residence for the New Orleanian demimonde. But in 1948, when Aschaffenburg converted the Pontchartrain to what was called a “transient” hotel—that word then not having the seedy connotations it does today—the Caribbean Room quickly became a canteen for celebrities and dignitaries. In its heyday in the 1940s and ’50s, Richard Burton, Helen Hayes, Tennessee Williams, and Carol Channing all supped there. Lucius Beebe, the journalist known as the Last Magnifico, once took a train 2,000 miles from New York to have lunch at the Caribbean Room. But it wasn’t all boldfaced names: New Orleanians seeking a night of elegance dined there, too. Boys and girls celebrated birthdays, grew to be young men and women, celebrated engagements, aged into couples, toasted anniversaries.
But by the 1970s, as visitors to the city started opting for newer hotels in the convention center area, the Pontchartrain began to decline. In 1983, the restaurant nearly burned down and a few years later the Aschaffenburg family sold the hotel to a Houston-based hotel group that halfheartedly tried to revive the glory days. Though the graceful wrought iron gates that led to the solarium of the Caribbean Room remained open, glamour, the most essential guest, did not venture through their threshold. And as the New Orleans food scene grew in luster and innovation throughout the 1980s, the sort of fine dining served at the Caribbean Room was deemed unworthy of preservation. By the 1990s the Caribbean Room was a relic. Hurricane Katrina, which heavily damaged the hotel, didn’t help either. And in 2008, the hotel converted itself into assisted-living apartments for senior citizens and stopped receiving guests altogether. The Caribbean Room was retired and, with it, the Mile High Pie.
Enter the Chicago-based hotel group AJ Capital, who bought the ailing Pontchartrain in 2015, shut it down and spent $10 million to bring it back to the full flush of life as a hotel last summer. The investors, which include football royalty Cooper Manning, tapped John Besh, the prodigal son of New Orleans’s culinary scene, to oversee the renovation and resurrection of the Caribbean Room, as well as the pie therein.
Boyishly handsome at 48 years old, John Besh is a chef who never stops moving. He’s so busy he often resembles a good-looking, smooth-talking blur. Besides the Caribbean Room, Besh has an ever-expanding empire of New Orleans restaurants from his fine-dining flagship, Restaurant August, to his latest, a collaboration with chef Aaron Sanchez, called, appropriately, Johnny Sanchez. Last year, he founded Our House Hospitality, to focus on hotel projects like this and the Nashville Thompson Hotel, within which he launched three restaurants when it opened last fall.
But for this project, Besh had to do something he’s never done: look backward. Unlike any other restaurant he’s been involved with, the Caribbean Room comes with a history. “It’s a high-wire act,” Besh says. “How do we preserve the good stuff, honor the history and make it relevant for today’s diner?”
The decor was simple: a matter of restoring the lush ferns in their hanging pots, the white rattan furniture with pink pillows gathered around the white-cloth-topped tables, the curtains with their cheerful woodland pattern, the carpet with its large palm fronds, and, of course, the pastoral murals by New Orleans artist Charles Reinike that evoke a dreamy glory from decades past. The more daunting task for Besh was the food.
The Caribbean Room was known for haute creole. A marriage of French techniques with creole ingredients, the cusine owes much to the African-American cooks who reached into their own spice pantries and culinary heritage to infuse the French roux and stocks; who drew from Lake Pontchartrain shrimp, speckled trout, and crabs, and—from the coastal waters—oysters. The progeny of this marriage ican be tasted in classics like gumbo, jambalaya, crawfish etouffée, and boudin. But whereas traditional creole dishes stopped at the point of delicious, content with the richness of earthy ingredients expertly prepared, haute creole added a layer of luxury.
Haute creole dates back to at least 1899, when Jules Alciatore of Antoine’s invented oysters Rockefeller (baked oysters under breadcrumbs and a rich herbal sauce, named after John Rockefeller), and the theatrical pompano en papillote (a fish wrapped in parchment with crab, shrimp, and wine that when baked, inflates to resemble a doughy balloon). In the early 20th century, Jean Galatoire invented trout meunière and cold shrimp in remoulade, decadent dishes still served today. And at the Caribbean Room, in the 1940s and ’50s, chef Nathaniel Burton and, later, Louis Evans, created dishes like shrimp Saki, named after a certain Ms. Sakowitz; crabmeat Remick, a shell piled with crabmeat, mayonnaise, and bacon; and trout Veronique, a dish made with hollandaise, poached trout and grapes—to the delight of the well-heeled guests.
“New Orleans has been geographically and politically isolated from most of the country, so we have our own little microcosm here,” says Besh, by way of explaining the city’s sui generis cuisine.
Because dining trends are perishable and culture ever shifting and because, as Besh asks rhetorically, “Who wants grapes with hollandaise and poached trout?” a stigma came to be attached to haute creole cuisine. “As a young chef,” says Besh, “I stayed away from it because I didn’t want to open a cliché New Orleans restaurant.”
And yet at the Carribbean Room, it fell to him and chef Lusk to take these anachronistic recipes and transform them for the modern palate. It began with a lot of listening. “We went around asking people what they most remembered from the Caribbean Room,” says Lusk, sitting under a portrait of New Orleans native son Lil Wayne in the lounge of the restaurant during a break from prepping. “There were two things: the trout Veronique and the Mile High Pie.” The pie, he initially thought, would be easy. As for the trout, he says, “Well, that was a challenge.”
Lusk looked at the recipe as a poet might regard a particularly complex rhyme scheme: as a framework for creativity. Instead of simply poaching the fish as had been done originally, he cured it with salt, sugar, ginger, and thyme. Instead of serving slices of raw grapes, Lusk placed white grape juice, fish fumet, and verjus in a vacuum seal bag and cooked it along with the fish for nine minutes. That liquid became the base for a light hollandaise sauce, which he put into a whipped cream dispenser and aerated even more. When the final dish is served, it comes with a side of grape-and-celery marmalade, a cloud of hollandaise, and a tender trout filet. It’s not trout Veronique; it’s like a villanelle of trout Veronique.
But the Mile High Pie was altogether different. The pie, he knew, more than the trout Veronique or the shrimp Saki or the crabmeat Remick was perhaps the most important piece of the puzzle. More than any other dish on the menu of the old Caribbean Room, the pie served as a pedal tone with the past. For many of the patrons, the pie was all they remember since they were likely children the last time they ate there. Think about it: If you were 8 years old, what would you remember? A poached piece of trout bathed in hollandaise sauce or a pie so high it looked like a landform doused in a chocolate sauce raining down from the heavens?
When the restaurant first opened, Lusk and pastry chef Erin Swanson experimented with a lofty, idealized version. They tried to do to the pie what they had done to the trout: make it modern and clean. Instead of a messy wedge cut, made with store-bought ice cream and meringue from a mix—yes, the secret of the Mile High Pie revealed—the team started from scratch. They made the chocolate base from heavy cream, eggs, chocolate, and cacao. The vanilla was a French vanilla, with real vanilla beans and egg yolks. The peppermint ice cream was made with fresh mint with just a dash of peppermint and cream cheese. To make the pie, the ice cream was transferred into trays of one-and-three-quarter-inch, perfectly circular polyurethane molds. When set, each “puck” was carefully stacked, one upon the other, with a thin disk of dark cookie crust in between and topped with similarly molded marshmallows. This process was so labor intensive it was one person’s full-time job and the effect was stunning: an austere modern column, a skyscraper of ice cream. Table side, the server would pour the dark chocolate hot sauce from an outstanding height to the awed guest.
The guests, however, were unawed. The complaints were vociferous and immediate. As much as genteel New Orleanians can bubble with rage, they bubbled. This was good, they said, but it wasn’t the Mile High Pie. Delicious but not what they remembered. Besh, who as a hometown boy is very solicitous of his townsfolk, puts it bluntly: “Locals wanted the damn Mile High Pie,” he says. “They didn’t want a fancy version of it.” “They were very nice,” adds Lusk, “but they were very vocal about their opinions.” After valiantly withstanding the weight of history and trawl of memory for a week, Besh and Lusk buckled. The locals would get their damn Mile High pie.
The team pored over archival photographs of the pie. They deduced from the gentle slope of its sides, they deduced that the pie had originally been made by packing ice cream tightly into an upturned wine bucket. The team decided instead to use a bain-marie whose straight sides made it easier to slip the ice cream out. It takes three days to make one Mile High Pie, from creating the base to finishing it off with homemade marshmallow. Swanson says she has 16 on rotation at a time and that the dessert is the No. 1 best seller. “Everybody wants a slice,” she says.
Light has fallen at the Caribbean Room, and the light emanates outward rather than spills in through the skylight above the diners’ heads. The room buzzes with the symphony of a night out: porcelain, flatware, voices, laughter. But the profusion of soft surfaces keeps sounds gentle, like an orchestra tuning up. At one table in particular, there’s an added resonance.
That’s where Jenny Aschaffenburg Williamson sits, the granddaughter of E. Lysle Aschaffenburg, daughter of Albert Aschaffenburg, a woman who had been eating Mile High Pie her entire life. “They used to call me the Eloise of the Pontchartrain,” she tells me. “I used to bring my whole sixth-grade class here and my dad served us Mile High Pies and Cokes afterward.”
Besh had asked her to come taste what they’ve been up to, and so tonight she’s here to see whether the present lives up to the past. The table has already worked its way through shrimp Saki, trout Veronique, crabmeat Remick, flavors she thought she might never taste again. And then the Mile High Pie arrives. Her eyes widen and follow the path of the plate as it is set before her. They follow the long stream of chocolate sauce as it is poured over the ice cream. She holds a fork in her hand and tentatively pushes down. For a moment, after she puts the bite in her mouth, Williamson is silent and the table is too. From her mouth to her mind run flashbacks of a childhood spent in this very room, with this very dessert. And then the tears begin to flow, tears of memory, tears of gratitude, tears of joy. She turns to Besh and says, “I don’t know any better reaction that you wanted.” And then, the table digs in to help.